The History that Duke Does Not Memorialize

By Laura Edwards

The history of Duke University is inseparable from the rich and conflicted history of the South, particularly the history of North Carolina.  But the campus captures and memorializes just one piece of this past—a piece that fundamentally misrepresents Duke University’s heritage.  The past now memorialized on campus focuses attention narrowly on the institutional history of Duke.  The campus recognizes faculty who worked here as well as others who have contributed to the University’s mission.  But it places particular attention on the wealthy white industrialists who gave the land on which Duke University is situated and who funded its buildings and programs.

This focus, however, is too narrow, because it does not acknowledge all the men and women in the state who gave indirectly to the University.  In a broader sense, the University also owes its existence to the economy that its founders created, an economy that required cheap labor and created vast inequalities.  In this sense, Duke’s heritage extends to all the North Carolinians whose labor built the wealth of its benefactors and whose futures were truncated by the political economy that so many of Duke’s donors supported and that benefited all those who have worked at Duke.  These North Carolinians also supplied more than labor.  They held onto their hopes and acted on them in creative, expansive ways, leaving a rich legacy on which Duke University also draws.  The lives and labor of these men and women made the fortunes of Duke benefactors and, hence, Duke University, possible.  More than that, their values and ideals have become embedded in Duke’s mission.

Duke’s Complicated History

Duke’s first benefactors made their fortunes in a particular context, namely the post-Civil War South, a time when a new generation of business leaders stepped up to transform a region that had been decimated by the Confederacy’s effort to separate from the United States.  Two of the university’s first benefactors—Julian Shakespeare Carr and James Buchanan Duke—were representative of these businessmen.  They rejected the logic that had directed the southern economy:  a focus on agriculture and the production of cash crops—rice, tobacco, and cotton—for sale and manufacture elsewhere.  Instead, they focused on manufacturing, transportation, and finance, with the intent of building up industry within the South.  Both Carr and Duke are best known for creating the modern tobacco industry.  But they had their hands in a wide range of businesses, including textiles, railroads, banking, and public utilities.  Those innovations transformed the economy, providing opportunities for subsequent entrepreneurs and business leaders. 

These business leaders depended on a profoundly undemocratic political system to maintain a low-wage economy.  In the wake of Confederate defeat, the elite white leaders who supported secession did everything they could to limit the implications of the Reconstruction Amendments, which mandated that states abolish slavery and extend civil and political rights to African Americans.  Those Amendments also had the effect of democratizing state government in ways that opened up political power to ordinary white people, who had been politically marginalized before the Civil War.  In fact, many white North Carolinians had opposed secession. During Reconstruction, whites who either opposed secession or had grown disillusioned with Confederate leadership during the war joined with African Americans to create a biracial coalition in the Republican Party, despite a long tradition of white supremacy, supported by the legacy of slavery.  The state’s elite leadership met those political efforts not with persuasion, but with brutal violence—as told in Albion Tourgee’s compelling narrative, A Fool’s Errand, which recounts the terror that unfolded just miles away from where Duke now stands and resulted in the collapse of the Republican Party. 

Seizing control of the reins of state power in the 1870s, the elite white leaders who headed the Democratic Party then institutionalized white supremacy, denying African Americans full civil and political rights and allowing an elaborate system of racial segregation.  Meanwhile, the economic fortunes of ordinary North Carolinians—small farmers and workers, white and black—plummeted, as prices for cotton and tobacco fell and credit dried up.  North Carolina was a state composed of smaller farms—hence the description of it as the valley of humility between two mountains of conceit (those mountains being the far wealthier states of Virginia and South Carolina, dominated by planters with large plantations and slaveholdings).  White farmers of modest means, already suffering from the effects of the Civil War, lost their land as the agricultural economy spiraled downward.  They became sharecroppers or moved to the state’s towns and cities, looking for jobs in the new textile and tobacco factories.  African American workers, who were emancipated without land, were already locked into sharecropping—an exploitative system that paid farmers a share of the crop at the end of the season, which was usually not enough to cover their expenses for the year and resulted in an inescapable cycle of debt. 

The state’s small farmers, sharecroppers, and laborers continued their efforts to organize in the 1880s and 1890s, hoping to acquire the political power necessary to address their economic problems.  They did so through a variety of organizations:  not just the Republican Party, but also the Knights of Labor, the Farmer’s Alliance, and, ultimately, the Populist Party.  In each instance, the elite white leaders used violence to quash the opposition and consolidate their power.  The turning point came in 1898, when white Democrats defeated the fusion ticket—a biracial alliance between the Republican Party and the Populists—through a concerted campaign that used the weapons of white supremacy to divide votes, holding out African American men as direct threats to the state and sanctioning lynching as a necessary response.  The campaign and subsequent election were brutal, in both rhetorical and physical terms.  No wonder, then that the tensions exploded in Wilmington, after the election, when white mobs staged a coup and unseated the democratically elected, biracial city government and terrorized the city’s African American community. North Carolina’s Charles Chesnutt saved the memory of this coup—which was sanctioned by the state’s Democratic leaders and justified by later white historians—in The Marrow of Tradition.  Democrats promised the disfranchisement of African Americans in the 1898 campaign.  They not only followed through, but also extended voting restrictions to poor whites by requiring literacy tests and other requirements, designed to keep them from the ballot box. After that, large segment of the population—white and black—remained essentially unrepresented in state and federal government until the changes mandated by the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which resuscitated the Fifteenth Amendment.  Even then, there have been repeated efforts to restrict this constitutionally protected right.

Political disempowerment had profound economic implications. Perhaps most important of all to the economy, however, was white supremacy, which artificially lowered the wages of white as well as black workers.  Business leaders like Carr and Duke then did everything they could to keep down the wages paid to factory workers and the prices paid to farmers for their crops.  They not only blocked the efforts of workers to organize, but also wrote in restrictive clauses in their labor contracts that extended control over workers’ private lives, mandating where they worshipped, what they wore, and how they spent their free time.  Notably, some factory owners compelled workers to shop only at company stores, which charged inflated prices and put workers’ paychecks back into the pockets of their employers.  In the countryside, landowners pursed similar policies with their sharecroppers.  Other state policies impacted workers of both races in a variety of ways, directing the state’s resources elsewhere and upholding the idea that any economic intervention on behalf of working North Carolinians would undermine their self-sufficiency and, hence, be detrimental to their interests.  The success of the businesses that funded Duke depended on this political economy, one that used up people and spit them out, denying any responsibility for the damage done.  

The people who lived and labored in North Carolina, however, were not just victims.  To the contrary, it was their efforts to organize and to improve their lives that prompted the violent response from the state’s established elite.  There were the efforts at biracial political organization that began during Reconstruction and continued through the 1898 disfranchisement campaign.  Farmers and sharecroppers, white and black, also came together in the Farmer’s Alliance and, later, Populism, to secure some control over the prices paid for their crops.  In the 1880s, the Knights of Labor attracted workers, who sought to organize not just for higher wages, but also for some control over the terms of the work that they did.  Later, in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, factory workers tried to unionize.  African Americans created an astonishing array of organizations to provide services that the state would not:  education and a range of social services as well as civil and political rights.  Black women as well as white women turned their considerable energies to push causes that affected them and their families, ultimately turning to women’s rights, particularly to women’s suffrage. 

Duke’s Rich Heritage

Those North Carolinians who could not spare the money to give to Duke, let alone attend it, contributed to the University in important ways.  Their labor is what built the fortunes of Duke’s benefactors.  More than that, the causes that they pursued are central to Duke’s mission today.  Their history is the one that Duke now honors in its policies and programs:  our commitment to broadly based education that challenges conventional wisdom, expands our intellectual horizons, and provides a foundation for meaningful social change; our efforts at community outreach and the promotion of human rights; and our support of inclusion and diversity.  Those values did not come out of nowhere.  They came out of our past—a past that is not currently memorialized on campus, but that is clearly a central part of the University’s heritage.

Even Washington Duke and Julian Carr were, in their own way, part of this piece of Duke’s history.  Duke and Carr chose to put some of their wealth back into the community to support an educational institution in a state where education had not been a priority.  Both men also supported women’s rights.  While generous in these and other respects, they did not address the structural inequalities that kept so many North Carolinians economically and politically marginalized.  Their limits reflect a personal investment in those structural inequalities—inequalities from which they benefitted and could not completely transcend.  They were—like all of us—flawed and human.

We are still enmeshed in the structures created by Duke’s benefactors. We are endowed with this legacy and enmeshed in its deeply flawed structures.  The past is what it is.  We cannot change it.  But we need to acknowledge it and the hold that it still has over us.  What we have power over is memory and memorialization—what we choose to honor in the past, build on, and pass on to the future. Right now, Duke’s campus memorializes just one part of the University’s past.  The other part—all the other contributions, economic, political, and cultural—made by a wide range of North Carolinians, even Duke’s financial benefactors, is far less evident. We need to catch up to our own history:  we need to own it, honoring the humanity of those who came before us as well as the challenges that defined their lives and that continue to define our own.

Signed by 31 members of Duke’s History Department